Jazz Institute of Chicago

Bill Russo—A Memoir

Bill Russo

By Don Rose

There were a lot of fine tributes to Bill Russo following his death on January 11—obituaries in Chicago, New York, London and all around the country ticking off the rich musical landmarks of his 74-plus years on this earth. If you read them all, you had to be most impressed by the amazing breadth and versatility of his musical output: “Third-stream” jazz composer; arranger who actually made the Stan Kenton band swing; creator of the rock cantata; composer (and sometime librettist) of operas and symphonies; orchestral conductor of jazz and classical music alike, and finally, pioneer in the jazz repertory movement.

Hard-nosed critics identified several of his works, such as “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West” and “Improvisation” as indispensable. His final work, the Pulitzer-nominated “Jubilatum,” which he rushed to complete and premiered only last fall, is a candidate for such classic status—perhaps his preeminent work. He was a man who tore down musical barriers like a golem gone mad, only to repopulate the musical landscape with stunning new structures in sound.

In addition to which, he was a damn fine jazz trombonist who could ride, rip or purr with a cool tone and distinctive, rhythmic lines, though few credited him as such. Sitting in the Kenton section a half century ago he was generally overshadowed on the horn by the giant Frank Rosolino—for whom he composed the winning “Frank Speaking”—but held his own well in sessions.

He didn’t play very often in the past decade, even before throat surgery two years ago would relegate his horn forever to its case. But in one odd gig in Italy he went public as a performer because the festival that wanted to bring him there did not have funding for composers and arrangers, but could pay the freight for instrumentalists. Otherwise it seemed he would play only at impromptu events, such as his beloved sister Barbara’s big birthday party where he jammed with several friends or closing night at the old Riccardo’s where he teamed up with journalist and sometime clarinetist Clarence Petersen.

I first got to know him a few years after World War II, while I was still in high school and he—just a couple of years older and displaying the enterprise he showed all his life—organized and recorded his own avant-garde band. He was bugged when it was described as “Kentonesque,” but soon came to terms with the description. He married and had a daughter, Camille, by the band’s singer, Shelby Davis, now living in California. Back then bebop was emerging as the music of choice, but Bill and his close buddies altoist Lee Konitz and pianist Howard Becker set out on a somewhat different path, studying with the modernist-individualist Lennie Tristano. He and Lee would both soon join the Kenton band, which perhaps then became more Russoesque.

As a devout bebopper, I was dedicated to the flatted fifth and worshiped at the altar of the almighty Bird; this was only the first of what sometimes seems a lifetime of aesthetic arguments with Bill. My camp snickered at Tristano and sneered at Kenton. Fortunately, there was a mutual adoration of Ellington and Lester Young—who was perhaps his model instrumentalist, superceding any brass player as an inspiration. Bill always thought the beboppers destroyed the role of trombone—which he perceived as swashbuckling, braying and perhaps even humorous—by turning it into a staccato, bass-noted trumpet. No offense to J. J. Johnson, of course, whose playing and composing Bill truly loved.

In more recent days we would argue about inside vs. outside playing—he never quite got with outsiders, despite his own experiments with atonality and a commitment to the modern. But he always kept his ears open. I ran into him not too long ago at a Ken Vandermark Territory Band concert, though I regret we never got to compare notes on that event. My bigger regret, however, is that I never got to hear his “Chicago Suite No. 2,” which has a movement generously named for me.

For years we saw each other only briefly and intermittently. He was living in glamorous places such as London and New York. Traveling across the country and the globe itself. Doing residencies at colleges and conservatories. Composing. Teaching. Getting into theater. Hob-nobbing with the likes of Ellington, Yehudi Menuhin, Dizzy Gillespie and Gunther Schuller. Having his work conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Getting divorced and remarried (Jeremy Warburg) and having children (Conde and Alexander) and getting divorced again.

Settling permanently back in Chicago in the mid-‘60s when the late Mike Alexandroff, president of Columbia College, got him to head up its music department—and Bill married yet again (Carol Loverde). Together he and Mike built the college into a major training ground in the arts. He’d found the Chicago Jazz Ensemble as a repertory experiment, but give it up because the band was virtually all white and he felt it was all wrong—especially at that time of racial awakening and black assertiveness—to have nothing but white folk presenting the musical history of jazz.

This was the side of Bill that didn’t appear in the obituaries. The political side—the social- and economic-justice radical. The side that emerged in his work with the Chicago Free Theater and in works such as “The Payoff,” a collaboration with the writer Denise DeClue that was a didactic, early critique of multinational capitalism and globalization. Panned by the critics, it was part of what I first perceived to be an ironic contradiction. He was an observant Roman Catholic who became increasingly conservative religiously through the years—he wound up going to a church that still did Latin masses—yet remained committed on the political left. Sometimes, I thought, even to the left of me, perish forbid.

He was further amused by the fact, and reminded me whenever he could, that despite our religious differences it was he—through the lunacy of Jewish law—who had Jewish children while I, born and bred in that faith, had goyish kids. (That’s because he had the foresight to marry and have children with a Jewish woman while I had failed in that regard.) But perhaps the biggest familial surprise of his life came a couple of years ago when a lady friend of bygone years called to inform him that their liason of more than two decades before had resulted in a daughter—now full grown. Whitney Schildgen then appeared on the Chicago scene to meet the father she had never known and become a part of Bill’s ever-expanding family.

Then there was the literary side of Bill—frequently another source of heated argument between us. He was, as the cliché says, a voracious reader, and an excellent writer as well, which showed up in his musical textbooks, of course, and in the occasional essay or Downbeat column. He was a scholar who knew the classics and often played librettist or co-librettist of his own musical works—though he had many collaborators, such as Albert “Bill” Williams, who frequently created or shared the textual end of his contemporary cantatas and operas. Williams hosted the retirement party and great musical testimonial last year when Bill retired as head of Columbia’s music department. How wonderful that he lived to experience that outpouring of feeling.

He loved Tolstoy—considered him the greatest novelist of all. (Yet another source of argument: I always opted for Dostoevsky.) He loved words—he was always reading lexicographies and exploring spellings and pronunciations and subtle meanings. Always making bets about whether it was pronounced one way or another—say, ehn-velope rather than ahn-velope or flutist vs. flautist. He got mad as hell when I won one or another bet. Not because he was cheap, but because he was almost as passionate about words as he was about music. He also liked being right. Almost as much as I.

The drive, the wanting to be right all the time, was intrinsic to his perfectionism. It was what made him such a taskmaster as a conductor and bandleader. It was what helped shape the CJE into the dynamic, swinging, precision machine it became after he revived it in the early ‘90s. But it was a teaching tool as well, and those who momentarily felt beaten down by that strict baton almost always experienced a positive lesson and, usually moments later, warmth and camaraderie.

Arguments, arguments, arguments. A half-century’s worth. But always with such great, good humor, compassion, and love. There was this engaging quality to Bill that went far beyond the evident qualities of his talent and his learning. Beyond even his courtliness of manner that was accentuated by his dress—an elegant jacket or tie, perhaps a breast-pocket handkerchief tucked in just so. It was this wonderful quality that kept him close to his pupils and friends, even to the women whom he married and divorced—and to a string of ex-girlfriends as well. They all may not have been able to live with him, but they all still seem to love him. Now that’s a rare quality. But then again, Bill Russo was a rare man.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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